Three2Six, the passport to tomorrow for immigrant children

Johannesburg’s Sacred Heart College has a long history of opening its doors to the most vulnerable children. Under the apartheid regime it educated children of all colours. Today, as home to Three2Six, it offers refugee children the chance of an education they may otherwise be denied.

Like their pupils, teachers at Three2Six were once refugees themselves. Their common history makes it easier to build trust and understanding between pupil and teacher. (Image: Three2Six)

Sulaiman Philip

The administrative office of Three2Six, a foundation school for refugee children, is up a steep flight of stairs. With its door wide open, you can hear the students of Sacred Heart College exuberantly head to waiting cars or to extra-murals.

Esther Munonoka, co-ordinator of the school, is disturbed by a tentative knock and timid voice. The former teacher, and refugee from Rwanda, excuses herself and talks calmly and peacefully to the young girl, whose unease melts away. Munonoka speaks whisper soft but confidently as she explains the challenges and successes of the programme, which is now entering its tenth year.

Named for the hours the school runs, Three2Six offers refugee children the opportunity to get an education. It is designed as a bridge for refugee children before they enter the South African education system. Students at Three2Six are tutored in three foundation courses – English, maths and life skills – up to Grade 6.

Munonoka explains: “We want to prepare our children to enter government schools. We give them a grounding that allows them to integrate into schools in their own communities.”

Classrooms buzz with languages from across Africa – smatterings of Shona, French and Swahili – until classes begin. Pupils who have been at the school longer encourage newer children to speak English only. The teachers, all of them refugees, are able to help pupils overcome language and cultural barriers.

Munonoka describes her charges as friendly, responsible and hardworking. To casual observers other adjectives come to mind: resilient, wary and aware. For them South Africa, and Sacred Heart, represent something we take for granted. Normal and safe, a place where they are free to learn, released from the fear of roaming bands of armed men. It’s a place that allows them to be children again.

Some of the students may be undocumented, but Munonoka will not say. Or care. Unless the students and their parents want them to know. When they are in the classroom, the teachers teach. However, Three2Six does offer help, where it can, to families to get their immigration status legalised.

For many, Sacred Heart is a safe zone, but Three2Six staff are well aware of the fears that drive life outside its gate. Whenever there is violence directed at immigrant communities, Munonoka and her staff are upsettingly conscious of it. The classes are small, so when even one child stays away, it is painfully obvious.

Violence, sadly, is nothing new to many of the children who attend Three2Six. “Speaking generally, our children and their parents are escaping war, genocide, and persecution. They are looking for something we take for granted, an opportunity to learn. Some have walked from the DRC or crossed from Zimbabwe. We take the trust they put in us, to look after their children, very seriously.”

At Three2Six refugee children get the chance to be kids again. (Image: Three2Six)

For immigrant children, Three2Six is the lodestar. They attend religiously and parents are involved despite their circumstances. Administrators lament that their success has made them a choice for South African parents eager for their children to benefit from the educational grounding.

“We have had some scary experiences because we won’t take in South African citizens. Our argument is the government is required to provide for the citizens of this country. We see ourselves as a partner of the government to help with a problem – we have an overwhelming number of refugees – that has overwhelmed them.”

Hunger is also commonplace among the 275 children that Three2Six educates, with 300 on their waiting list. As Munonoka points out: “You can’t learn if you’re hungry.” The school provides students with a meal a day and has, over the course of its existence, served more than 350,000 meals.

Sacred Heart College supplies school uniforms to the children. Often the uniform is among the few items of clothing the child possesses. (Image: Three2Six)

A history of caring

Giving Three2Six a home fits in with Sacred Heart’s long history of social engagement. In 1976, in defiance of the apartheid government, the school opened its doors to all races. It has been a beacon whose identity is wrapped up in its social justice activism.

Colin Northmore, head of Sacred Heart College, explains that Three2Six would not exist if not for the work done by Bishop Paul Verryn at Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church in 2003. “He called me and asked for help with the children who had taken refuge in the church after the first wave of xenophobia. We tried to help, we tried to do some teacher training, we tried to help with some of their other initiatives but they all collapsed.”

While he takes as gospel the morality of doing something, Northmore believes that the work of the Central Methodist Church failed because there was no long-term plan in place. “At the time one of our brothers (Sacred Heart is one of 403 Marist Brothers schools spanning the globe) from Brazil was passing through and spoke about a programme they were running. They had a fee-paying school in the morning and a fee-free school in the afternoon and an adult education programme in the evening.

“One of the defining features of that school was they did not use the same staff. All of these ideas coalesced and led to us asking: where is the social injustice in Johannesburg. That’s where Three2Six was born.”

Reaching out

The project helps documented and undocumented migrants who would otherwise struggle to gain access to education. Northmore stresses that the programme is not a school but a bridging programme. He believes South Africa’s future is best served by allowing migrants to integrate into society.

“We are not best served if migrants lock themselves in their own enclaves, or if South Africans build walls around themselves. We do not benefit from one another if we lock ourselves away out of fear or a lack of understanding.”

Building understanding

If there was criticism, Northmore explains, opinions were quickly changed as children began playing and talking to each other. Understanding grew as Three2Six children were made to feel welcome on the bucolic grounds of Sacred Heart. “Our afternoon children are encouraged to use the sports fields as well, to be normal kids, to laugh and play. To have a normal childhood.”

Watch: Precieuse: a refugee’s story. An animated biographical story created by the children of the Three2Six school at Sacred Heart College

Northmore believes the well-heeled students of Sacred Heart have benefitted as much as the refugee children they have welcomed into their world. Kindness and respect, he believes, triggers understanding and opens up the possibility of transformation on both sides.

“My parents are very proud of this project. The mothers of my day school noticed that some of our students weren’t eating their meals; they were packing them up and taking them home. So they started a food parcel project that now feeds a hundred families every month.”

Now in its tenth year, Three2Six has spread to two other campuses and has been nominated for a JFK Humanitarian Award. The programme, one of a handful across the globe, is being recognised for its work in solving a growing problem – migration and how to accommodate refugees in an urban setting.

“It’s a significant intervention into this problem in the world. How do you accommodate people moving to cities? And Three2Six is one small part of the answer to that question.

“You need to understand something about Sacred Heart. We are one of the most diverse communities you will find. We are trying to fulfil the dream of what South Africa could become. My children already engage with difference.”

What Munonoka, Northmore and the children of Sacred Heart and Three2Six have created is a community committed to embracing and celebrating all that makes us different.